"Starbucks Versus the Traveler": a photo-audio essay on the ubiquity of the green mermaid

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Whenever I travel to a new city, I immediately get to work on a mental map of its coffee shops. I do this in part because they provide the points of a basic geographical framework, in part because they offer a window onto the life of their neighborhoods, in part because I can get work done in them (in my line, you don't really take vacations; you just set up laptop camp in other cafés), and in part because I wither away if I don't get a cappuccino on the daily. I usually plot out a mixture of a few independents, a lot of local chains — and, often, an enormous number of Starbucks locations.

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It would take a hardcore Starbucks-hater to avoid them while traveling, and it seems their sheer ubiquity has made a hardcore Starbucks-hater out of more than a few travelers. This phenomenon inspired Jim Benning, travel writer and co-founder of the estimable World Hum, to create the short photo-audio essay called "Starbucks Versus the Traveler."

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"Does the world's Starbucks cup runneth over?" asks Benning, pondering the rate of new outlets opening worldwide. "More to the point, for people who love travel and love our differences, what does this mean? Will Starbucks and other global businesses eventually stamp out local culture, as some fear?" He addresses the question with sounds and images collected during the many Starbucks experiences he and others have had while traveling in cities from Tijuana to Tokyo.

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I once interviewed Benning on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. We talked about Starbucks and its supposed stamping-out of local culture, finding a less imminent threat than some do. Admittedly, I myself tend to avoid Starbucks while traveling, but had to become a regular customer in Japan, where only that highly controlled, endlessly self-replicating coffee-house chain consistently provides free wi-fi foreigners can use.

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There, with almost all the elements of the physical and comestible environment around me fixed in a kind of ultraclean nationless nowhere, I realized that I could see everything Japanese around me — that is, the people, their personalities, and the stamp their attitudes put on even the mightiest global chain — that much more clearly. Sometimes the most exotic place you can go is, indeed, a Starbucks.